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Towson bail bonds business plans to challenge law limiting signage

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemBusinessTowson SquareDavid Marks

The owner of Bail Bonds Inc. plans to challenge a law aimed at controlling signage of bail bonds businesses along East Chesapeake and Virginia avenues in Towson, the owner's attorney said last week.

The law, sponsored by Councilman David Marks, was passed earlier this year and goes into effect in August. But John Turnbull, attorney for Bail Bonds Inc. owner Calvin Jones, said they'll challenge the citation and could file an appeal.

"My client was here first," Turnbull said. "He has a legally issued permit for the sign and he intends to call the county and Councilman Marks to task for individually targeting his business and the reverse spot zoning."

"I feel like they're bullying me," said Jones, 38, of Middle River.

Bail Bonds Inc. moved into the residential office building in the 400 block of Virginia Avenue in December 2012.

Jones previously owned Elite Bail Bonds on East Chesapeake Avenue, but moved his business under the name of Bail Bonds Inc. to his current location because the space provided more stability than his previous lease, he said. He said bail bondsmen flooded the area when the county consolidated bail hearings at the Towson district courthouse on East Chesapeake Avenue.

Turnbull said the large, bright orange Bail Bonds Inc. sign on Virginia Avenue paid for itself in a matter of days by attracting customers from the courthouse.

But also within days of the sign going up in early January — after Jones said he received all of his permits for the sign, which he hung in his window — there was an outcry from county officials and residents alike.

In mid-January, Marks responded to community concerns by introducing legislation that limited bail bonds businesses signage to one sign no larger than 6 square feet with no illumination.

The furor centered on Bail Bonds Inc.'s large orange sign and a sign for Double D Bail Bonds, which features a busty woman in neon lights.

However, Marks ultimately changed the wording of the bill to guard against signage in order to shield the historic adjacent black East Towson community from the conspicuous signage.

During a council work session in February, Adelaide Bentley, a longtime East Towson resident and president of the North East Towson Improvement Association, told the council, "We, the community, are not pleased at all with the signs from the bail bonds. For years, we've been trying to improve the community and here come the bail bondsmen putting blight over it."

The legislation allows for a free standing sign at residential office buildings located within 600 feet of the East Towson community — a buffer zone that stretches to Delaware Avenue from the western border of East Towson on Jefferson Avenue — but the sign cannot be over 6 feet tall and must have either a brick or masonry foundation, or be mitigated by plantings. Neon-illuminated signs cannot exceed 4 square feet.

The legislation required bail bondsmen who wished to operate in downtown Towson and have signage to obtain a special permit and approval from the Office of Administrative Hearings and called for existing bail bondsmen to file a permit for their signage as well. Before the legislation was passed, bail bondsmen were subject to the same county signage laws as other businesses.

County attorney Mike Field said there's "no hiding" the fact that the original bill was written with bail bonds businesses in mind, but said the bill was "heavily amended to provide the justification to protect that historic African American community there, and the bill was drafted with content-neutral language."

"They would certainly have a better case if it only served bail bondsmen, but the initial test for something like this is whether or not it's content-based or content-neutral," Field said. "The council passed the content-neutral bill."

In a statement, Marks said the bill has "broad community support."

"Despite the fact that no one testified against the bill, the County Council provided a six-month opportunity for business owners to comply with the law," he said. "I am quite confident that the legislation passes legal muster."

Turnbull said the legislation was not motivated by community outcries, but rather the area's development. He said the Towson Square development, which will feature a Cinemark movie theater and eight restaurants, is the real reason behind the signage issue.

"I have reason to believe that Virginia Avenue will become a major access point for the new theater and dining locations, and that the developers do not want their patrons to see that there is a bail bond company across from the courthouses," Turnbull said.

Marks, however, said that the legislation could affect those businesses at Towson Square as well.

"My main goal was to improve the look of that entire area," Marks said.

With only two other employees, Jones understands that his is a small business that could be in for a protracted battle with Baltimore County. But with a prime location in what has become the hub of Baltimore County's bail bond trade, he knows the fight is worth it.

"If I had to get rid of the sign, I wouldn't be in business up there," Jones said. "I'd have to close the office. I'm going to take this as far as I have to."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Laws and LegislationJustice SystemBusinessTowson SquareDavid Marks
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